Is this what a win feels like? Is this what joy feels like? It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten.
1) After five straight losses – many of them terrible, horrible, no good, very bad losses – I think we’re all a bit damaged inside. Whereas in previous seasons, match day has been exciting, the opening kick a moment of hope, in 2019, match day has become just another chance for pain, and the opening kick is just the beginning of the punishment. That’s where my head’s at, at least.
And this past Saturday was no different. I knew we were going to lose in Columbus, I just didn’t know what form it would take. Would it be a late game heart-breaker? Or would we be humiliated early and often, to the point where I’d wonder if I had to watch the whole damn fiasco, or if I was allowed to leave early.
So, you can imagine how surprised I was when the game was still 0-0 in the 30th minute. Surprised, pleased, but also a little wary. Surely it couldn’t last, right? Surely the whole thing would go to shit, right?
Nope. Instead, in the 31st minute, Diego Valeri’s free kick found Larrys Mabiala’s forehead, and the ball found the back of the Columbus net.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I didn’t know how to feel. Oh, sure, I celebrated, but that celebration was tinged with a bit of disbelief. The Timbers scored? The Timbers were actually leading a soccer game? Is this allowed? Do I live in a world where good things are allowed to happen to Timbers fans? All these thoughts were running through my head.
And they were still running through it four minutes later when...
2) ...Jeremy Ebobisse doubled our lead.
Holy hell, that’s a wonderful, utterly professional finish from Jebo. That’s the finish of a seasoned veteran, not a 22-year-old with 1,266 career minutes.
But how did Jebo get so open? Why isn’t he blanketed by Columbus defenders? Because two guys are following Andres Flores to the near post and one guy’s following Cristhian Paredes to the far post, which leaves a nice little section of green grass in the middle of the box for Jebo to drift into.
What did I say in last week’s column? When the Timbers have multiple attackers in the box, good things happen. And not only am I saying it, mlssoccer.com’s tactical expert Matt Doyle is saying it, too.
3) So, yes, Jebo’s goal put us up 2-0, but I’m telling you, I was still afraid to be happy. I knew it could all come crumbling down. I knew our defense could blow it.
But here’s the thing; after being an absolute shit show all season, the defense looked strangely competent on Saturday. I’ve said numerous times that the 2019 Portland Timbers can’t play well without three center backs, but you know what? Looks like I was wrong. The 4-4-2 looked good.
The defense never really bunkered, but they were still solid, organized, and weren’t hanging goalkeeper Jeff Attinella out to dry the way they have been all year. There were none of those maddeningly common moments where three or four attackers were pinging passes around the box and Jeff had absolutely no chance. That wasn’t really happening Saturday, and I’d call that huge progress. Huge.
But as long as we’re talking about Jeff Attinella, let’s just acknowledge that, despite only giving up one goal, this was probably his worst game of the year. He had a number of really nice saves, but an equal or maybe even higher number of mistakes. And his mistakes were weird, too. I don’t have video, but I distinctly remember one weird moment where he punched a ball when he should have caught it and another where he punched a ball so poorly that he actually put the defense into a worse position.
4) And then there’s what he did in the ninth minute.
That’s pretty awful, right? Well, apparently Jeff wasn’t satisfied with his first effort, because in the 69th minute, he did it again, only worse.
Yeesh... that’s awful.
Here’s my theory. I think maybe Gio told Jeff to be extra aggressive in starting the counter attack. Maybe after six shitty games, Gio was like, “Jeff, as soon as you get the ball, I want your head up, looking for runners, and getting the ball to them. Don’t hesitate, don’t delay, just hit ‘em with fast counters. It’s our key to victory.” Instructions like that might explain Jeff’s actions. Except, of course, he executed them very, very poorly.
Does Jeff’s weird game call for a benching? Absolutely not. He’s been pretty solid this year. Yes, we’ve given up a shit ton of goals (or if you’re British, a shite tonne), but on most of those, the defense left Jeff out to dry. This is the first game where Jeff was the weak link. He’ll be better next week.
5) Now, if the 2019 Portland Timbers have taught me anything, it’s that there’s no lead that can’t be pissed away, there’s no limit to how the Timbers can fuck up, and, to be honest, soccer only exists to make me unhappy. These are all things I’ve learned this year.
So, if you think I was an emotional mess when we were up 1-0 and 2-0, just imagine me after Columbus’s goal. I was a wreck. I was doing all my usual neurotic sports-fan things: rocking back and forth, whispering messages of doom to the person next to me, and ducking under the table anytime Columbus had a clear shot at goal. It was so pathetic.
But here’s the cool thing; even though I was losing my shit, the Timbers weren’t. It was bizarre. They were playing like a legitimately competent soccer team, not the worst team in MLS. Even with a lead, the attackers kept attacking and the defenders kept defending. Don’t believe me? Check out the game’s expected goals chart.
Not bad, eh? After the 30th minute, Columbus didn’t do shit. Portland kept getting chances, while Columbus basically flatlined. If not for Attinella’s giveaway, we’d have shut them out.
That didn’t stop me from freaking out, of course. I was a mess. But in stoppage time, the Timbers finally, blessedly, put the game to bed. And who did the deed? New guy Jorge Moreira.
I’ve spent the last few weeks waiting for Moreira to do something clearly and obviously positive, and I gotta tell you, that’s a laser of a finish. I still don’t have a super-strong opinion on him, positive or negative, but this goal will help push it toward the positive.
Also worth noting, what a first touch from Paredes! I talked earlier about how Jebo looked like a veteran finishing his chance. Same for Paredes here. The pass from Sebastian Blanco was coming in hot, and young Cristhian acted like it was no big deal. Collected it on the half-turn, cool as you like, then sent a perfectly weighted pass to Moreira, who barely broke stride, one-timing it into the top left corner.
And that made it game, set, and match. I was finally able to come out of the fetal position, and the Timbers were finally able to come home with the full three points. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.
6) Let’s finish with some random thoughts.
- I tried the “Hey, Ho, Jebo” chant at the bar with only moderate success. I’ll keep at it. We’re gonna make this thing happen.
- I gave Jebo tons of credit for his professional finish, but I should also point out that he completely blew two other chances, one with his foot, one with his head. So, you know, turns out he’s not perfect.
- Great to see Mabiala notch his first goal. He had five last year, which I believe led MLS defenders. Hopefully getting his first will open the floodgates and lead to a hot streak for the big Frenchman.
- Valeri hasn’t been great this year, but he still has four assists, which puts him on pace for 19 assists this year. That seems impossible, but I swear it’s true.
- Flores looked good in the 4-4-2. Is he now our first choice winger? Or is that Andy Polo, whenever he comes back from injury? You know me, of course. I want someone under the age of 22 out there. Tomas Conechny or Marvin Loria, perhaps.
- Or maybe Brian Fernandez. There’s talk we may be getting a new winger, you know. But since there’s been talk before, and none of those worked out, forgive me if I don’t get overly excited about this new rumor until someone’s actually landed at the airport.
- Lucas Melano for Jebo late in games feels a bit like Mattocks for Adi. Take out the bruiser, put in the speedster. Give the defense something new to think about, get them a little off balance, and see what happens. I don’t hate this idea in principle, but it’s worth noting that both Mattocks and Melano are world-class non-finishers. So there’s that.
- Also worth noting, Foster Langsdorf as a late game sub might work, too. Only with him, it’s “take out the bruiser, put in the poacher.” At least, I think Langsdorf’s a poacher. I haven’t seen him enough to know for sure. Let’s fix that, eh, Gio?
- For those of you looking to get your freak on, here are some nice wholesome numbers from #StatMan Mike Donovan.
Diego Valeri career MLS stats as of this second-— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) April 21, 2019
- Here’s an utterly charming bit of inside information: Zarek Valentin is the designated counter on team photos. What language do you think he counts in: English, Spanish, or French? I’d like to believe that he switches it up each game. And then maybe some weeks, just for a laugh, he uses some random language that nobody speaks, like German or Mandarin or, I don’t know, Klingon. This is what I’m going to believe moving forward.
Fun fact: Zarek is the designated counter for how long the guys have to stand for this photo every game. Here he is mid “two”. At three they all stand up and get on with the game. Also there is about 10 photographers taking this photo and nobody knows where to look. https://t.co/AeP7mIbjpF— Craig Mitchelldyer (@craigmdyer) April 21, 2019
- And finally, this has nothing to do with the Timbers, but everything to do with living in Portland. Somehow, we managed to get Diego Valeri, Christine Sinclair, and Damian Lillard all at the same time. Don’t take that for granted.